(Ed. Note. There are references in here to four titles won by Schilling’s teams. That number is three; my efforts to award the 1993 World Series to the Philadelphia Phillies this afternoon have been rejected. Apologies to the readers, to Blue Jays fans, and of course, to Joe Carter.–JSS)
Curt Schilling has decided to undergo shoulder surgery that will end his attempts to pitch in 2008, and may well mark the end of his career. Schilling had tried to rehab the torn shoulder tendon since March, but called off the rehab process and elected to have surgery in part because a throwing session a week ago went poorly. He will be out for six to eight months at minimum, but his recent blog post and the sounds his doctor and club officials with the Red Sox were making indicate that this may be the end for Schilling.
Whatever your opinion of him, this is not a tragedy for Schilling. He is a well-rounded man with a life beyond baseball. He’s had a fantastic career in which he found himself in World Series-ending dogpiles four times, won many awards, and was able to use baseball as a platform to espouse beliefs both political and personal, and leverage his fame to raise money for the fight against and care for victims of Lou Gehrig‘s Disease (ALS).
Nevertheless, whenever a player with this many accomplishments sees his career come to the end, as fans our reaction is the same: to put the player’s career into some kind of context, to evaluate him and place him in a bin. Is he a Hall of Famer? An inner-circle Hall of Famer? Is he just shy of it, and instead belongs in the fictional “Hall of the Very Good”? How will history treat Curt Schilling, or more to the point, how will the BBWAA treat him when he comes up for election to the Hall in the winter of 2012?
Well, to some extent, that’s an easy question. Schilling’s association with winning teams, the legend of 2004-when he underwent minor surgery before pitching Game Six of the ALCS-and his part in ending the Red Sox’ 86-year rut between championships means that he’s almost certain to be pushed through by voters who will see not only those things, but also that Schilling’s success came largely against “Steroid Era” lineups. With the ingrained mythology of performance-enhancing drugs having a larger effect on the discussion than any evidence, Schilling will get a boost from the perception that his numbers were hurt by the cheating batters around him. He will be elected.
Should he be, though? Certainly Schilling’s win total and won-loss record will not be marks in his favor: a 216-146 career is something to be proud of, but the BBWAA hasn’t elected a starter with fewer than 250 wins since they voted in Catfish Hunter in 1987. The last starting pitcher with fewer wins than Schilling’s total to be elected was Don Drysdale in 1984. On the ballot with Schilling will be contemporaries such as Mike Mussina, John Smoltz, Kevin Brown, and Andy Pettitte. The Hall has generally been hard on pitchers in this range; just 10 of the 42 pitchers with between 200 and 225 wins are in the Hall, counting Pedro Martinez in this group. The electorate has deemed Bert Blyleven and Tommy John unworthy. It may be an uphill battle to get Schilling in.
Schilling does have significant career marks in his favor, however. He is one of 16 pitchers with at least 3000 career strikeouts. Of that group, nine are in the Hall and four others are headed in; Schilling, Smoltz, and Blyleven round out the group. Schilling is also second all-time in strikeout-to-walk ratio, a figure that will be a big part of the stathead case for his inclusion. Short career aside, Schilling was one of the great power/command pitchers of all time.
There it is: all things considered, it was a short career. Schilling is just inside the top 100 in career innings, just inside the top 90 in career starts. Although he pitched in 20 seasons, his career was broken up by injuries and occasional role changes. He had just nine 200-inning seasons, and just once had three of those in a row. In fact, when he was 33, absolutely no one would have suggested that Curt Schilling might someday go to the Hall of Fame. He was 120-95 with five 200-inning seasons, no 20-win campaigns, and a season shy of 2000 strikeouts. He’d received Cy Young votes in just one season, finishing fourth in 1997.
Then, from 2001 to 2004, Schilling finished second in the Cy Young voting three times, had three 20-win seasons, struck out more than a thousand batters, and was a central figure on two of the more unlikely championship teams of all time, the ’01 Diamondbacks and the ’04 Red Sox. Named co-Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated for the first triumph, when he and Randy Johnson pitched seemingly every inning in the World Series, it was the second, and the famous “bloody sock” game, that elevated Schilling. Those two postseason runs, along with his part in the Red Sox’ title last year, rewrote Schilling’s legacy in a way that no amount of regular-season success ever could have.
For the most part, I use objective standards, such as Jay Jaffe‘s WARP system, in making the case for Hall of Fame status. For the players whose careers are now winding down, the first generation of candidates to have played a substantial portion of their careers since 1995, that’s not going to be good enough. As the postseason has become a larger part of the baseball calendar, and we’ve come to judge teams-right or wrong-more by post-season success than regular-season accomplishments, players’ post-season performances mean more in evaluating their careers. Schilling, and Smoltz, and Bernie Williams a year before either, and eventually players such as Andruw Jones and Jim Thome and Andy Pettitte will be hitting the ballot as marginal candidates based on their regular-season work, their stat lines. No doubt JAWS will show each as a good player, but none as a slam dunk, and in some cases perhaps not part of the discussion at all.
Schilling, however, has 133 1/3 post-season innings with a 2.23 ERA and nearly a 5/1 K/BB. That’s an enormous number of high-leverage innings at a fantastic rate of performance–keep in mind, that’s pitching against other playoff teams, not the Pirates. While you can’t give him all the credit, his teams did go 10-2 in post-season series and won four World Championships. Schilling has seven World Series starts on his resume, and delivered a 2.06 ERA and 48 innings in them.
This isn’t a clutch argument, and it’s not a “winner” argument. It’s an argument that in the modern era some players have had a large number of opportunities to play in the postseason, a postseason that baseball fans value more than ever before. How a player performs in those high-leverage situations is the kind of thing that can move a Hall of Fame case.
Curt Schilling performed as well as anyone in those situations. That performance, those 130-odd innings of Cy Young-caliber pitching in high-leverage games, push his Hall of Fame case from marginal to definite. It’s not about the bloody sock, or taking the ball in Game Seven, or any of the soft factors that have added to his legend. It’s about performance, and the value of that performance. Curt Schilling goes into the Hall of Fame because his post-season performance pushes him over the line.